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A Review of “Teacher,” by Mark Edmundson

LA Times Book Review, August 4, 2002

TEACHER: The One Who Made the Difference, By Mark Edmundson, Random House: 280 pp., $23.95

book cover of Teacher by Mark EdmundsonAnyone who opens “Teacher” expecting a sepia-toned tale of inspiration and uplift, a highbrow version of “Dead Poets Society” or “Tuesdays With Morrie,” will be disappointed. Despite its treacly subtitle (“The One Who Made the Difference”), Mark Edmundson’s memoir is an unsentimental account of his intellectual awakening in 1969, the year a freshly minted Harvard graduate named Franklin Lears came to anarchic Medford High School in Massachusetts to teach philosophy.

Swiftly dispensing with what he dubs the “Mr. Chips-Robin Williams myth” of the selfless mentor who transforms the lives of a hapless bunch of kids, Edmundson offers a vivid account of how Lears influenced a miserable, moody adolescent (“one of the least appealing figures to have traversed the earth’s crust”) who was sleepwalking through his high school years. “Teacher” is the book Holden Caulfield might one day have written had he successfully completed therapy and gotten a PhD in English. The literary price Edmundson pays for this verisimilitude is that he occasionally lapses into the characteristic excesses of a typical high school student, filling out his relatively slight story with windy digressions, braggadocio and all-around goofiness, but this is small.

Although barely mentioned in these pages but explored in an essay Edmundson wrote for Harper’s magazine, “Teacher” was inspired by the existential midlife crisis he had while teaching at the University of Virginia. A successful critic and popular lecturer, he came to the conclusion that although his students considered him an “amiable and attentive guide,” few had been changed by their encounters with him, whether intellectually, spiritually or morally. In the Harper’s essay, “On the Uses of a Liberal Education as Lite Entertainment for Bored College Students,” he lamented the fact that his students, though technically accomplished, lacked passion. They were “sweet and sad, hovering in a nearly suspended animation,” he wrote. In “Teacher,” it seems that the situation hasn’t gotten any better. “No one seemed to be home,” he adds.

Reading “Teacher,” I came to understand how Edmundson had been capable of writing so unsparingly, yet compassionately, about his shallow, consumerist students in his Harper’s essay: Thirty years earlier, he had himself been within a hair’s breadth of becoming a version of them (although in a much less privileged mode). If “Teacher” is the story of how one man awoke Edmundson from his conformist slumber, it is also a call to arms for his students to rise up and rebel against their culture’s genteel embrace.

When we first meet Edmundson, he is “a high school thug” living in the working-class town of Medford, Mass. “A football player, a brawler who detested all things intellectual,” Edmundson confesses that he “had never read all the way through a book that was written for adults and that was not concerned with football.” Apart from playing football (which he isn’t that good at), Edmundson and his knucklehead friends spent a lot of time drinking beer and talking about the sex they weren’t having, biding time until those “in charge peeled back the lid of our tiny tin box of a school to pluck some for the factory, some for the office, some for the army, some for booze, some for dope.” When a benevolent guidance counselor suggests he take a philosophy course with a new teacher, he relents only because “it seemed an agreeable enough way to waste time.” A slight, soft-spoken man wearing a skinny tie and a baggy, “moth- eaten legacy suit,” Lears couldn’t have bore less of a resemblance to central casting’s choice for the “Great Teacher.” Edmundson quickly takes his measure and judges him “absurd, a joke,” simply another ineffectual teacher for the class to torment.

Things get off to a shaky start when Lears has the audacity to open class with a passage from Nietzsche: “Genuine philosophers, being of necessity people of tomorrow and the day after tomorrow, have always found themselves, and had to find themselves, in contradiction to their today.” The words mean nothing to Edmundson and his classmates beyond providing evidence of Lears’ pointy- headed cluelessness.

The classroom etiquette Lears introduces seems minor by today’s standards, but one must remember how radical such things were in 1969. To combat his students’ indifference, Lears rearranges the chairs into a discussion-friendly oval, occasionally holds class outside, allows them to grade themselves and brings in Harvard Students for a Democratic Society activists to “radicalize” the class. He tosses out the sanctioned reading list and assigns Freud’s “Group Psychology,” Camus’ “The Stranger,” Hesse’s “Siddhartha” and Kesey’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” Things get really weird when Lears lets on that he doesn’t own a television set, and before long he’s playing recordings of “hippie music” (Velvet Underground, The Incredible String Band) and leading a discussion of the meaning of the Rolling Stones song “Connection” (” … I just can’t make no connection / But all I want to do is get back to you”).

Like all genuinely transformative experiences, Edmundson’s seduction takes place gradually, without his being fully aware of it. He and his friends find themselves imitating their teacher’s absurd rhetorical questions (“What do people think?” being the most common one). Edmundson starts talking about Lears to his father. He begins to read some of the books Lears mentions. He’s hooked. “Somehow he’d colonized us, gotten inside our heads, and we didn’t even realize it,” he writes.

More significant than the books Lears suggests is the simple act of recognizing Edmundson as an individual. What’s more, Lears actually listens to him. “The experience was of a different order from anyone else. He wasn’t thinking about anything else. He was completely poised on your thoughts.” Anyone who has experienced the magic of being thoroughly understood by a conversation partner will recognize the intensity of emotion behind Edmundson’s description. “It was a beautiful drug he dispensed. I had never gotten it before,” he writes.

Edmundson becomes an obsessive student, reading with the “slightly cracked ardor” he once reserved for football. He discovers that he was mistaken in his assumption that “all the volumes on the library shelf had been written by the MHS teachers or their surrogates,” and that books by iconoclasts such as Ken Kesey and Malcolm X can in fact help him gather his own inchoate thoughts. Edmundson is enraged when he realizes how much he’s missed. He spends hours in the library, trying to make up for lost time, even reading two books simultaneously, “jerking [his] head from one to the other.”

But what role, precisely, did Lears play in Edmundson’s awakening? It isn’t clear. Like Socrates, Lears is a gadfly; “his method is irony, questioning, hanging around, and being annoying.” It isn’t so much that Lears teaches Edmundson anything in particular as that he frees him to question his world: the Vietnam War, racism, feminism or any of the other pressing questions in 1969 America.

Edmundson opens “Teacher” by asking if it is “possible to be moved by such a person secondhand, to be inspired by someone who did his work thirty years ago?” Alas, I don’t think it is. While Edmundson’s story is thoughtful and well-told, he never portrays Lears as a full-bodied character, another instance in which “Teacher’s” verisimilitude trumps its dramatic efficacy. Edmundson deliberately chooses authenticity over cliche (“And this, reader, ought to be the climax of the book … raise the music level a little,” he teases). But the fact that Lears fails to become a cinema-ready “character”–the lifelong mentor, the surrogate father- -confirms his success as a teacher. Edmundson’s encounter with this latter-day Socrates leaves him unencumbered, which is the true sign of intellectual freedom.